It’s early yet, but already the Eastern Conference makes no sense. Last year’s juggernauts are this year’s punching bags. This year’s table toppers could just as easily fall down the ladder as widen their gap at the top.
Which teams are good? Which are mediocre? Which are doomed to spend 2019 languishing below the playoff line? Which of us has the answer to any of those questions?
Not I, not with any shred of confidence, at least.
To be blunt, every single team in the East has either a worrisome red flag, a glaring on-field deficiency or a big fat question mark — in some cases, all three.
What are they? Here’s how I see it, in order of the current standings and in 280 characters or less. I should probably seek help for Twitter addiction. For what it's worth, I wrote these Wednesday afternoon. My opinion didn't change much after watching the midweek action.
D.C. United (17 pts from 9 GP)
Wayne Rooney, left, hit a free-kick winner on Wednesday night for D.C. United against Wil Trapp and Columbus Crew SC | USA Today Sports Images
First place, Wayne Rooney, 17-6-6 since Audi Field opened and yet ... something feels off. They don't have a "Oh, wow!" win this year, unless you count at last-place Atlanta, which I don't. LuchoRoo isn't the dominant force it was in 2018. Five of seven on the road, beginning with Wednesday's 1-0 win at Columbus, will clarify a lot.
Montreal Impact (14 pts from 9 GP)
If Ignacio Piatti is unavailable, then what? Remi Garde, outside of that Sporting KC whooping and the first three months of 2018, has Montreal playing mostly organized, effective soccer. But without Nacho, they lack a cutting edge, even if they did just beat up on the Revs. Here was the split with and without Nacho before Wednesday night's win.
Toronto FC (13 pts from 6 GP)
Eleven goals allowed in six games. Jozy Altidore on the shelf with a muscle injury. waves red flag wildly
Toronto has the highest ceiling in the East, at least among current playoff teams, but allowing nearly two goals per game will keep them from realizing their potential.
Philadelphia Union (13 pts from 8 GP)
Quality depth! Tactical flexibility! Things are pretty good Philly. Their weakness is they don’t have top-end talent unless Marco Fabian rewinds the clock to 2014, David Accam plays at an MVP level or Brenden Aaronson turns into Kevin De Bruyne. Would you bet on that happening?
Columbus Crew (13 pts from 9 GP)
Goals. Where do they come from, other than from Gyasi Zardes? Only one team scored fewer in 2018 than the Crew. The defense has been good, but scoring one goal per game makes the margins razor thin. When Zack Steffen leaves in the summer, the margins will become even thinner.
Orlando City (11 pts from 8 GP)
Orlando seem to be on the brink of utter chaos every time they take the field. That's fun for neutrals, but it has to be maddening for James O'Connor. They yo-yo between gritty 1-0 wins (VAN @ home) and wild matches that could go either way. Lots of wildcards here, many of them TAM/DPs.
New York City FC (11 pts from 8 GP)
NYCFC have the roster to be a playoff team. Talent only, they're probably a good bet to host a playoff game, too. But they just haven't performed to the best of their abilities under Dome Torrent. The players say they believe in their manager. Some consistency would go a long way.
Chicago Fire (9 pts from 8 GP)
Chicago coach Veljko Paunovic argues on Wednesday night as he is sent off by referee Robert Sibiga in the Fire's 1-0 loss to New York City FC | USA Today Sports Images
What do they do well? Veljko Paunovic has done a good job setting his team up to get results game-to-game. Either they grind it out and man-mark the other team's stars out of the game (RBNY, TOR) or they rely on a moment of brilliance. Neither seems particularly sustainable.
FC Cincinnati (8 pts from 8 GP)
Now that the heady early moments of their expansion season are past, it's clear this team simply does not create enough goal-scoring opportunities. Nine shots on goal and one goal in four games (no wins) tell the tale. As do their league low 38 chances created from open play.
New England Revolution (7 pts from 9 GP)
Only the Rapids have as many Ls as the Revs' six. Brad Friedel calling his team out for lack of effort is the definition of a red flag. They lead the East in xG against and are last in goals per game. Which of the signings, other than Carles Gil, has impressed? Lots of questions, few answers.
New York Red Bulls (5 pts from 7 GP)
The system was the star, and Shields followed. But what happens when the system is 10 percent less effective, Tyler Adams is gone, Bradley Wright-Phillips isn't scoring and Kaku brings more drama than production? It looks like we're finding out. Transition is hard.
Atlanta United (5 pts from 6 GP)
MLS, where last year's darling is this year's dud. Nobody has more talent in the East. How to best use that talent? Well, that's still very much TBD. Frank De Boer says he likes what he sees, but he's paid to get results. They're not getting the best from anyone on the roster.